Running as a Practice
This past weekend, I ran the inaugural Chicago 13.1 Half-Marathon in the historic West Side of Chicago, IL. The race featured several elite-level runners, a three-time Chicago Marathon winner, and an Olympic marathon runner in Galen Rupp (pretty cool!). It was pretty inspiring to see them whizzing by as they rounded the bends and turns within the course as you ran. To see their body mannerisms and approach to the run was phenomenal and something I think I will always remember about this race (including, the opportunity to say that I ran a half marathon with an Olympian).
Along with that, I believe I gained a deeper understanding of what being grounded and mindful is and how we can return to those things when we feel “off” for any reason. I wanted to record those thoughts here today for later reference and benefit of those reading this article.
I describe grounded as a relax, present, and stable state of mind. It could mean something different to you, but this is how I tend to describe it to someone. I feel grounded when I am anchored in something that I am creatively curious about or around people that I love or am currently enjoying the company of and can be “myself” with. The act of ‘being grounded’ waxes and wanes for everyone, but it is something that can be immensely useful in the presence of unknown situations or stress. For many, long distance running is an extremely stressful practice. For some, even the thought of running a mile or more can induce contempt and ill-fillings. However, for me its not only a time to run for the sake of “just being able to run”, but its also an area to put in to practice what I know to be true about most things in life — that our mindset can have an incredible effect on how we perceive things that are and might also not be.
Brad Stulberg has a book titled “The Practice of Groundedness” that I have found to be affirming and relatable when applied to running. In it, he talks about 5 core principles that highlight the mindset that I’d like to share in this post.
1.) “Accepting our current reality”- When we accept things just as they are, we are able to find some level of peace. Letting go of the intense feelings that might be causing us to resist or become ‘stuck’ can have a profound impact on our performance. For many, at the start of a big race there are a whole host of emotions that are displayed throughout the crowd. You’ll see some runners very quiet and focused on what’s before them and other’s dancing, laughing, and talking to the runners to their left and right, almost as if there isn’t a race at all. Often this is done as a means to escape reality and what’s before them. When I first began running, I would seek means to hype myself up and psychologically push down these feelings of anxiety and nervousness by turning up the music in my headphones and dancing about. However, once the race started, I would see myself scowling and falling short of breath within 10 minutes due to my mind racing to try to sort out why my expectations aren’t meeting my output or why I did this to begin with and how much further until I finished. lol. The more I would try to push down the idea, the stronger the idea became. The thing I found to be most useful when approaching races is to just accept not only that I am in a race, but also how I am feeling (physically, mentally, and emotionally) at each moment of the race. That doesn’t mean to be passive or resign to some lower form of myself, but it means to be more neutral in how I see the situation and myself. To be fully accepting of the work I put in to get here and that my preparation will be enough to get me to where I want to be — if not today, another time. There’s an ancient Buddhist parable about this idea: If you’re experiencing a negative thought, feeling, or event, it’s as if you’ve already been pierced by one arrow. But if you react to it with another negative thought or feeling, you’re shooting yourself with a second arrow, making the injury even worse than the first arrow. These negative thoughts and feelings often hinge on the idea that things shouldn’t be the way they are. With that in mind, try to avoid the word should when evaluating your present reality. Instead of saying, I should be doing this differently, say, I want to do this differently (ie- I want to run a 2 hour 1/2 marathon). And instead of saying, “this shouldn’t be happening”, say, I wish this wasn’t happening (ie- I wish I didn’t run a 3 hr 1/2 marathon). That way, you’re not just unproductively gnashing your teeth about your situation. Instead, you’re calmly acknowledging it — along with your desire to do something about it (ie- how can I be better for the next race?). That’s not resignation; that’s preparing for action. Along my run, I try to do a lot of focused breathing (which helps calm your body’s central nervous system down) and smiling. Yes, smiling! I look around at all the things happening on my run — the people who have come out to support the runners with funny signs, the neighborhood itself and nature surrounding it, other runners and their t-shirts and perhaps their motivations for running the race, and the number of volunteers that make these races possible. Every time I pick up a cup of water, pass a sign with course directions, or pass a race coordinator or police officer I think that they make it possible for me to do the race and I thank them. It makes them smile and typically they root me on which in turn makes me smile. All these things assure me in the work I did prior to this race and allow me to run more freely and assertive. Grounded in my truth — regardless of outcome.
2.) “Stay present and patient”- Accepting that you are in a 13 mile race is the first part of the process, but after that, the next part is to accept that there is a certain amount of time and effort that will be needed to get to the end of it all. While good shoes, light snacks, hydration, and a good playlist/podcast/audiobook is helpful to the cause, it won’t do the work of getting you to the finish line alone. Rarely in life are things (uniquely differentiated in value) short or seamless. To stay on the path of making progress and being able to finish the race, you have to maintain focus and stick to it until its end, which is what these two principles of groundedness are about. In running, there are really only several things that are of importance (how you define and/or rank these things are more narrow; I’m just focusing on the broader ideals) — your breath, your form, and your mindset. I tend to think of anything else outside of this to be more complimentary or a distraction.
a.) Breathing- At a basic level, we breathe to fuel our bodies with oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. When we stress our bodies through running, our bodies struggle to get adequate oxygen in and remove this waste product. When we reach these limits, we also see an increase in lactic acid in our muscles, which causes cramps and fatigue. The best answer to get more oxygen into the body is through more efficient breathing, hence why checking in on your breathing is incredibly important throughout a run.
b.) Form- Proper running form involves having your body in alignment with good posture, relaxed shoulders and hands, and feet landing under the body but slightly in front of your center of gravity. Proper running form helps you run efficiently, so you can go faster with less effort and less likelihood of getting injured.
c.) Mindset- As runners, we run intervals, log numerous miles, and (sometimes) cross-train with the conviction that if we are physically fitter, we will run faster. However, a recent study suggests that when it comes to racing, our minds might be just as important as anything we do with our bodies.
The way I think about my runs or trainings is to do a check in with myself at certain intervals. Check on my breath — is it relaxed and rhythmic in its current state? Am I breathing through my nose or am I breathing more so through my mouth? I do a body check starting from the top of my head down to my feet. I ask myself questions like, “is my face tense or loose”, “are my shoulders relaxed”, “ do I have my hands clinched”, and “am I giving myself room to fly”. Doing this at certain points of the run help with grounding myself in the run and trusting that I am more than enough in this process.
3.) “Being Vulnerable”- One of the hardest things in a race is to feel inadequate about your performance or where you are in comparison to others. It happens to everyone! You’re running and all of a sudden you see that 60+ year old man run past you or you feel a cramp in your leg and you ask yourself, “how can this be happening to me”? Both of these things happened to me over the course of this run. True strength requires acknowledgment of weaknesses, flaws, and that we aren’t immortal. It takes courage to be open and honest about your shortcomings. However, freeing yourself of these ideas/mindset can be incredibly freeing! They can also allow you to take more joy in the journey [race] versus seeking the ends to it all. It’s hard to see the crowd of people rooting you on in a major race when you are focused on carrying a persona or comparing yourself to those in front or in back of you as you are running along. Stay personally present!
4.) “Surround Yourself with Community”- The beauty of running a race is that you are surrounded by other runners of the same mindset and desires (more or less). We all have a story of reason to be there, but the race itself is what connects us and makes us “a community”. That’s a powerful feeling — and there’s a reason for that. In Stulberg’s book, he talks about a trip to see the redwoods in California. Stulberg learned something else about them after that epiphany he had while hiking. The reason they’re so firmly anchored to the ground isn’t that their roots are especially deep. In fact, they only descend six to twelve feet into the soil. Instead of growing downward, they focus on growing laterally. And as a result, their roots end up getting intertwined with those of their neighbors, forming a dense network of mutual support. That’s the secret to their stability! In reality, no one is an island. As humans, we’re an intrinsically social species. Even more than those redwoods, we rely on each other for our strength. Acting like we can “go at it alone” is just another way of pretending we’re something we’re not. It’s not a sustainable way of life. When you are running there are usually runners to your left and to your right that you can lean into for inspiration and support when you feel yourself regressing or when you have an abundance of motivation and/or inspiration you can share with the runner who might need to hear “how you feeling” as they continue their journey. I was locked in with those 5000 runners for 13 miles and we were a community to the end. It was incredibly inspiring to see Galen Rupp run past at his 5 mile mark (my 2+ mile mark) and I am of the belief that it was incredibly uplifting to the spirit of the gentleman I passed at my 5 mile mark (his 2+ mile mark). All of us going towards the same goal at the same time, but for different reasons. It’s beautiful and grounding.
5.) “Keep Moving!” — In Western thought, there’s a long tradition of viewing the mind and body as two separate things. But according to modern science, they’re more like two sides of the same coin — an integrated mind-body system, to put it technically. For instance, your gut bacteria can affect your mood, and your mental state can alter your heart rate. In these and many other ways, your mental health depends on your physical health, and vice-versa. Now, your body was made to move, not sit all day. Exercise is therefore crucial to both physical and mental health. That might not be news to everyone, but the benefits of exercise can still be astounding. Numerous studies have found it to be one of the most effective ways of both preventing and treating depression and anxiety. In my time with the United States Marine Corp, physical health and strength is always at a premium, but not just for the sake of being able to run faster or lift heavier, but more so to maintain and create a sound mind. Running was a godsend for me after the birth of my son and my wife’s new job. I had worked out pretty much all of my adult years within a community of friends and colleagues, but when we had a newborn and my wife was constantly away for work, I didn’t have the community or the tools [mindset] necessary to workout and continue the trend I had done for some 25+ years of my life. I started seeing a physical deterioration in my appearance and in my mood. Running became a great resource for me which not only gave me a good aerobic workout but also a good strengthening of my lower body and lung capacity. Not only is the feel-good hormones that exercise releases useful, but it’s also the fact that it helps you practice the other principles of groundedness. In working out, you learn to accept discomfort, stay present with your body, and be patient with making gradual progress toward your fitness goals. And while you can certainly exercise alone, it’s much more enjoyable with a buddy or a group, so it can also be a great way of building community.
Most importantly in putting all of these things into practice is to start small. I didn’t run this race the first month I started running. I gave myself room to grow in all of these concepts and in the practice of running. Often its the journey and not the result that is the most interesting and satisfying. Results tend to be fleeting often enough. This allowed me to get some small wins along the way and find out what works for me and what doesn’t. Give yourself time and grace.